An update on 'Another nail in the coffin of Enlightenment reason'
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
In response to a lot of feedback on yesterday's post, the loudest and nastiest of which came from people who deny climate change, I have revised the essay to hopefully make clearer that it's not really about climate change. It's about how we think. Or rather, how we think we think. The gist of the piece is about how human cognition works, and the fallacy of believing that we can ever be perfectly objectively dispassionately 'just the facts' rational. Our views and opinions reflect far more than just the facts, as the emotionally animated criticism from climate deniers itself suggests.
The piece describes several aspects of how human cognition works which in fact explain the very response it provoked from climate deniers. To the extent you can, I encourage you to read this as though you had no position on that polarizing issue. I think there are important ideas here relevant to all of us, myself included, if we want to challenge ourselves to be the most open-minded careful critical thinkers we can be, on any issue.
A paper in this week’s Nature Climate Change reinforces a really important insight about the limits of our ability to reason and think rationally. It’s another blow to the crumbling ramparts of the belief that the Enlightenment, as Kant put it, was "Mankind's final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error." Sorry, Emmanuel but we have a long ways to go.
In The Polarizing Impact of Science Literacy and Numeracy on Perceived Climate Change Risks, Dan Kahan and colleagues demonstrate how increasing science literacy about climate change led those who deny that climate change is real to deny it even more. What’s revealing here is not that the deniers didn’t become believers the more they knew. It’s how they used the information to reinforce what they already believed. “Ignorance and error” are not resolved with more facts and knowledge.
This about far more than climate change. It speaks loudly to what we've learned about human cognition generally. It's a message we all need to consider about ourselves, if we want to make careful, thoughtful decisions about pretty much anything in our lives.
Kahan’s paper reinforces several current bodies of research that try to understand human cognition more holistically. First, it supports Kahan’s own work on Cultural Cognition theory, which finds that though we employ facts as weapons in our battles over issues and ideas, the real war is about tribal identity and cohesion. We interpret the facts – no matter how many of them we have at our disposal – so our views agree with the groups with which we most closely identify. And we fiercely defend the views of our group because our own identity, and even our personal safety, rely to a great degree on being a member of the tribe in good standing.
Kahan’s paper also reinforces the case made by Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier about why our ability to reason developed in the first place. Sorry again, Enlightenment fans, it wasn’t to figure things out and get them ‘right’. Reasoning was a tool by which social animals could win arguments and persuade others to see the facts in some particular way, what Sperber and Mercier call Argumentative Reasoning. No, this was not so we’d all be great lawyers. Sperber and Mercier argue it was adaptive, good for our survival. As the tribe tried to figure out some new plant or animal or way of hunting, and various interpretations and ideas were offered, the most effective reasoning produced the most persuasive interpretation which produced general agreement on “the truth”. Argumentative reasoning helped bounce various interpretations off each other until one became the consensus view, and persuading everybody to get on board with that view was socially cohesive and protective, regardless of whether the consensus view matched all the evidence.
This would explain what Kahan found, that if you provide a climate denier with more facts in the Enlightenment expectation that the evidence will change their minds, it’s more likely they’ll apply their powers of reasoning to reinforce and defend their tribal consensus and identity. Cultural Cognition and Argumentative Reasoning also help explain why the stronger people feel about an issue and the more their identity is connected with those views, the more the facts…even if those facts conflict with their views…only reinforce how they feel. In Kahan’s study, after being provided with neutral information, the denial of climate change grew most among those who denied it the most in the first place.
This is frustrating news for Enlightenment Rationalists. But perhaps there is hope in what psychologists have learned about human cognition, that there are two major components of the overall system, System One and System Two, and while System One subconsciously applies all sorts of instinctive mental shortcuts and emotional cues to quickly come up with how we feel, System Two uses slower, conscious, purposeful reasoning to methodically figure things out. Yes, we CAN think, and reason…but only so much. Paraphrasing Ambrose Bierce from the Devil’s dictionary, the brain is only the organ with which we think we think.
Kahan’s paper reinforces the dangerous naivete of placing too much faith in System Two. The problem is, the two systems aren’t separate. They interact, and as they do, System One usually has the upper hand. Or as psychologist Daniel Kahneman recently put it, “… most of the time System Two acts as a spokesperson for System One. System One makes suggestions and System Two explains them, or rationalizes them.” The reasoning system often only serves to argue the case. Something much deeper is figuring out how we feel about the case to begin with.
This is not good news in our post-industrial/technological/information age, as we face complex issues like climate change or nuclear power or genetically modified food, issues fraught with important details and long-term tradeoffs that demand more careful evidence-based analysis and conscious reasoning. We seem condemned to the perils of what Andy Revkin has called an “Inconvenient Mind”, which evolved to handle less complicated threats and challenges. But maybe in all this seemingly depressing evidence lies the answer, an answer that would please the pioneers of the Enlightenment Ideal themselves.
The Enlightenment Project believed that we could apply the new institution of science to answer difficult questions and make more intelligent choices, as individuals and as society. This new work on cognition is just a part of the science that can help us move toward those choices. We can use our System Two powers of reason to apply our understanding of the foibles of human cognition to the challenge of thinking about things more carefully. We just have let go of the hubris of thinking that the sort of rational thinking the Enlightenment pioneers had in mind, is the kind of thinking we actually do.
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